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Great Bangor Fire of 1911 – Part 2 

Catherine Pegram

Nearly a century ago, The Great Bangor Fire of 1911 raged through the heart of the city. More than 250 landmarks, businesses and homes were gone and two people were dead by the time the fire was contained. As Bangor prepares to mark the fire’s 100th anniversary, it’ll be remembered not just for the history it destroyed, but the history it created. “This is the Norumbega Hall, which was destroyed,” say Bill Cook, Special Collections Librarian at the Bangor Public Library.As Bangor burned during the Great Fire of 1911, local photographers captured the scene in thousands of pictures, many of which are in a collection at the Bangor Public Library.Cook says, “You gotta whole block of wood structures – they go fast.”Hundreds of artifacts also surfaced out of the rubble, such as a package of stamps from the post office, now preserved at the Bangor Museum and Center for History. Curator Dana Lippitt says, “And you can see the image still on it, they’re just kind of charred.”Historian Dick Shaw says the fire left a huge hole in downtown Bangor, but timing was on the city’s side that April Sunday. “It happened in the spring of the year so rebuilding was much easier. Had it happened on a busy day like a Friday, there would have been a massive evacuation at the high school, crowd control would have been a major problem.” But for all the fire destroyed, Shaw says it left the city with an attitude of endurance.”It gained a sense of pride I think that we’re able to get it all together and do this in the face of really overwhelming odds. A lot of people said it couldn’t be done, that you couldn’t build downtown.” Cook says the fire enflamed the city’s Yankee spirit.”We’re burned, but we’ll rebuild, no problem. And they did. They just went ahead and rolled up their sleeves and dived right in and rebuilt.” Lippitt, the curator of the Bangor Museum, says that created a turning point for the look of the city.”It forced the city to modernize, to look to its future and they did that. They brought in some incredible architects for the time period.” The fire had a constant impact on Bangor’s rebuilding efforts over the next two years.The Morse Oliver building, the tallest building downtown at seven stories, was always remembered as the place where an onlooker from Brewer wandered into the rubble and was killed. Shaw says, “Bangor never built that high after 1911. It never built beyond six stories, if you go downtown.””The fire was a major turning point in the library,” according to Cook. “It went from a really small city library to the beginnings of a really major regional library like we are now.”Shaw says the fire decided a lot of development issues. “There were a lot of old warehouses and those burned up so it took care of that problem. It actually forced Bangor to face up to a lot of problems that it had been dragging its feet on.”Captain Matt Costello with the Bangor Fire Department says it also sparked a change in firefighting. “Technology and fire service evolved over time.You have better equipment, you have better gear for firefighting. So it became a positive aspect.” Now, nearly 100 hundred years later, community leaders hope the day will stand as a reminder of not just what Bangor lost but what it gained.”It’s a city that still has a good sense of pride in itself,” Shaw says. “Ad still has its eye on the future. It’s still taking care of the buildings that rose up out of the ashes.”A number of events will commemorate the Great Bangor Fire of 1911, starting on April 30th – the anniversary. Among the plans, a public exhibit downtown, walking tours and projects for area students.